He jump-stepped out of the batter’s box, throwing his bat confidently to the side with his eyes peeled on the baseball. There was no doubt this shot was heading over Baggett Stadium’s outfield fence and into the parking lot — the only question was: fair or foul?
Among the statistics that formulate every at-bat in baseball down to a science, there still seems to be an element of chance in senior shortstop Mike Miller’s game.
“Sometimes it feels like if I don’t have bad luck, then I don’t have any luck at all,” he said.
Earlier in his career, this towering drive to left field might have drifted foul — but on this day, fortune was on his side.
His two-run home run cleared the fence just inside the foul pole, putting the Mustangs up by one in the final game of a three-game sweep of Pacific on Sunday. He would eventually get another base knock in the game — pushing his total to seven hits in the series — following an offensive outbreak that saw him collect a career-high five hits in as many at-bats the day before.
But like Miller said, luck isn’t always on his side. He has battled sporadic injuries and sickness throughout his career.
After graduating from De La Salle High School in Concord, Calif., in Spring 2008, Miller wasn’t offered a lucrative scholarship to play baseball at the NCAA Division I level. He was scarcely recruited because of a nagging injury to his back suffered in his junior year.
Unwilling to pass up an academic opportunity, Miller enrolled at Cal Poly in Fall 2008, a year in which he was away from the baseball diamond for the first time since he can remember.
The 5-foot-8 dynamo wanted more than just an education, though. He said he couldn’t stand the thought of not playing the sport he loved for the rest of his life.
“Halfway through my first year at Poly, I really missed baseball,” Miller said. “I was really itching to get on the field and do something.”
After playing summer ball following his freshman year, Miller called nearby Cuesta College coach Bob Miller asking for a shot to join the junior college-level powerhouse squad. Bob Miller obliged and asked to see how good the middle infielder was.
“I had to earn my spot,” the shortstop said. “I started off as the backup second baseman, and throughout the fall, I just kept working and was able to earn the starting shortstop spot.”
As a Cougar, Miller excelled, hitting .392 with 34 RBI and garnered multiple honors including first-team All-Western State Conference North Division. His success warranted notice by Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee and his scouts.
As per NCAA regulations, governing transfer students from a two-year to a four-year institution, Miller had to first earn his associate’s degree from Cuesta in order to be eligible for a four-year athletic program at Cal Poly.
At the time, Miller was dual enrolled, taking 20 units total — eight at Cal Poly, 12 at Cuesta — in his first season on the field with the Cougars. He also had student loans at Cal Poly, meaning he had to stay enrolled while still taking classes and playing baseball at Cuesta.
When Cal Poly shortstop Kyle Smith signed with the Cleveland Indians organization the following summer, Miller got a call from Lee recruiting him to join the Mustangs in Fall 2009 as a walk-on. Passing up an opportunity to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference for Virginia Tech, Miller became a Mustang both in the classroom and on the field.
Initially, Miller struggled. He batted .160 with no extra-base hits throughout the season.
“He was a little overwhelmed at the (NCAA) level, especially the pitching” Lee said. “He needed to grow with confidence. He had a rough start right off the bat.”
His struggles didn’t stop there. He’s considered to be small for his position and possesses medium power and speed.
“Being an undersized guy there’s always a little chip on your shoulder because there’s a lot of people saying you can’t do it,” Miller said. “I decided I wasn’t going to let my size stop me.”
Miller rebounded from his inaugural stint with a solid year in 2011 starting 40 games at the shortstop position. But, luck wasn’t on his side.
Taking batting practice between games of a doubleheader versus Loyola Marymount in March of last year, Miller took an awkward swing and felt a pop in his wrist. He finished the doubleheader and played a portion of the following day’s matchup against the Lions before being taken out. As a result, the starter missed the second half of March.
A month later, he was sidelined again — he was out as quickly as he had returned. This time it was a battle with an illness, which forced Miller to miss considerable playing time in late April. After missing another half month, Miller returned to the diamond.
“It affects a player quite a bit,” Lee said. “You’re talking about a three-and-a-half month schedule, and Mike was missing three weeks at a time. Once you come back, you don’t come back 100 percent.”
But in 2012, he’s been healthy and has provided a spark hitting in the leadoff spot for the Mustangs, Lee said.
“He’s definitely one of those guys you want up (to bat) with the game on the line,” Lee said.
Miller is back to his full potential, as he’s tops on the team batting .358 while leading the squad with a .418 on-base percentage figure for the year.
Miller’s perseverance through his unique beginnings at Cal Poly and his health has proved he’s an asset to the team, according to friend and teammate Mitch Haniger.
“Watching him go through all this it’s definitely all about the hard work he’s put in in the (batting) cages,” Haniger said. “If I had to say how Mike Miller hits so well, it’s because he’s a real hard worker.”
Whether or not its luck, Miller won’t let any setbacks affect his play on the field.
“I don’t leave anything on the table,” he said. “I’m going to get my full potential out just through hard work day in and day out.”